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Kevin Cullen

Trafficked vs. not trafficked: It’s a distinction without a difference, says survivor of prostitution

Nicole Bell worked to help sexually exploited women in Central Massachusetts. Christine Peterson/Worcester Telegram and Gazette/file 2017/Worcester Telegram and Gazette

Before her regular speeches to men who have been arrested for soliciting sex with prostitutes, Nikki Bell usually prints out some talking points.

But her printer was acting up, and, besides, she had just spent the previous 24 hours taking in the blizzard of coverage after New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft had been accused of soliciting sex at a downmarket massage parlor in Florida.

So when she walked into a Worcester Police Department conference room Saturday and looked out at 30 johns, she didn’t need a piece of paper. She spoke as someone who was pushed into prostitution as a teen, forced to stay in it for a decade to feed a drug addiction, and who now helps women trapped, as she was, in that inherently violent cycle.


“For me,” she said Monday, “the really frustrating piece of the Robert Kraft situation is that people are saying, ‘Well, if these women were being trafficked, it’s not OK, but if they aren’t being trafficked, that’s a different story.’ Look, just the act of buying someone for sex is wrong. We say, ‘End prostitution because trafficking is so terrible.’ How about we end the demand for prostitution because it’s gender-based violence?”

To treat women who worked at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, where Kraft was allegedly a customer, as somehow a special case in the world of paid sex is to lean on a distinction without a difference, she says. Almost all prostitutes don’t want to be doing it, whether they are trafficked or find themselves exploited because of an addiction or other vulnerabilities such as homelessness and poverty. She said the vast majority were sexually assaulted as children and meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The idea that women who do this make a choice is nonsense, the ‘Pretty Woman’ fantasy,” Bell said. “It’s only a choice if you have choices.” The real choice, she says, lies not with the seller, but with the buyer. “My trafficker wouldn’t have been selling me if there wasn’t a buyer.”


On Saturday, Bell directly referenced the Kraft situation as she spoke to a group of men who cut across every demographic.

“You might think you weren’t paying for a trafficking victim,” she recalled telling them. “Why does that matter? Money doesn’t equal consent. It is unwanted sex. You’re putting your wants above a very damaged human being. I hope at least that I have ruined your ‘Pretty Woman’ fantasy, and for those who don’t care, just know that every woman who gets in your car is disgusted by you.”

Bell said that men sometimes cry after her talks. But on Saturday, no one cried, and one guy had the effrontery to smirk at her.

The criminal justice system is typically disposed to treat prostitutes as criminals and their customers as misguided consumers. Massachusetts spends about $1 million a year to lock women up for prostitution, but the men are usually sent to a four-hour session like the one Nikki Bell spoke at.

Women go to jail; men go to class.

Two years ago, state Representative Kay Khan filed a bill to treat prostitutes less as criminals and more as victims, to provide services instead of putting them behind bars, where they are often recruited by pimps and traffickers who groom them with letters and online deposits to their prison accounts. The bill was sent for study. This session, a slightly different version of the bill will be considered.


Nikki Bell was able to save herself because some people believed in her and mostly because she believed in herself. As founder of LIFT, Living in Freedom Together, she has a calling to save others trapped as she once was.

But she has no patience for people who make excuses for men who pay for sex while they have no, little, or only conditional regard for those on the other end of the transaction.

“When I speak, I’m often introduced as somebody’s wife and mother and sister,” she said. “How about if I’m just somebody? That should be enough.”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.